Funds help lawyers to fight for vulnerable in Ukraine
Law students set up a legal aid clinic in Mariupol
After enduring over seven years of conflict, people facing legal problems in Mariupol, Ukraine, finally have somewhere to turn thanks to a team of local law students.
‘Studconsult’ is a legal aid clinic set up by three friends from Mariupol State University that aims to help people to rebuild their lives without being afraid of the financial implications.
Inna Mykhailenko, Roman Shamara and Violetta Dresviannikova have spent the last six months finding solutions to dozens of complex legal cases, including helping an orphan to receive backdated social security payments and a woman to access medical treatment.
The clinic is the result of their participation in UNICEF’s UPSHIFT innovation programme for young people and a grant they received from UNICEF and the European Union.
“There are no small cases”
The friends had long dreamed of opening a law office together. But they did not have the money or support to implement a serious project.
"Nobody wants to hire students with no experience and entrust them with important cases,” says 20-year-old Violetta. “We understood that we would have to gain such experience ourselves.”
UNICEF’s UPSHIFT programme, which works to empower young people to address challenges in their communities, finally helped the students to realize their dream. They used the UAH 50,000 they won to repair and furnish an office at the university.
"We had no difficulties during the project,” adds Violetta, smiling. “When there is a good idea that you really want to implement, everything goes as it should.”
After opening the office, the team placed an announcement in the local press, offering free assistance in civil, labour, land, commercial, housing and environmental law, as well as social protection and pensions. From that moment on, their services were in demand.
"We deal with difficult cases and clients sometimes, but we always think: ‘What if our grandparents were in their place, who would help them?’" says Violetta.
"Elderly people come to us, not only because we help them for free, but because besides thinking rationally, we also do not completely turn off our emotions. We try to sympathise and help.”
Legal advice during the pandemic
Before COVID-19 hit, the three friends had managed to meet more than 25 customers face-to-face. Now the legal clinic has moved online, communicating with clients by phone and conducting consultations on Facebook, Instagram and e-mail. The clinic has received more than 100 requests for help and the appeals keep coming.
"When the epidemic started, we had been receiving calls asking to explain all the rules and restrictions,” says Violetta. “People had been asking if wearing a mask was their personal right or obligation. They had been asking where they could go, what places they could visit."
The group tried their best to explain the rules from a legal point of view.
Quarantine has postponed Studconsult's plans to organise on-site consultations in a rural area on the contact line in eastern Ukraine.
"We wanted to organise mini-lectures and answer questions in Sartan, Volodarsky, and similar villages, where people have limited access to legal aid," says Violetta.
The group also hope to expand the clinic, attract more law students, and eventually transform it into a full-time law firm.
Meanwhile, Violetta and her friends continue to help those in need.
"If not for our clinic, I think our clients would have to look for money to seek paid help. But in most cases, in my opinion, their problems would simply remain unsolved, because it would not be profitable for lawyers to work on small cases. That is why people need free legal aid."